The Triple Crown season inspires parties, fashions, and over-the-rainbow aspirations, not to mention a variant of spring fever that often begins in the winter. During Triple Crown season, the chronically nonchalant have been known to leap atop a table and beg their favorite deity for a finish line; young fans who can’t afford a Porche sometimes buy cigars instead to celebrate a winning bet and signal their success to the world. Five weeks might seem an inordinate stretch for the daily wearing of a single suit, but not to somebody who had the Derby winner while wrapped in the lucky garment. Well, it was, at the very least, entertaining: The Triple Crown season ended last Saturday with Essential Quality’s superlative performance in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
And so the sport’s second season, the championship season, which inspires more summit conferences than parties and infuses everything with an air-raid level of seriousness, begins. What’s most surprising about this bifurcation is that one season doesn’t necessarily flow into the next; it’s not like the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, nor the NBA’s regular season and playoffs. The Triple Crown season generally determines the champion 3-year-old male — 17 of the last 20 had grabbed at least one of the famed jewels — and the championship season usually determines everything else. That’s why Mystic Guide, although he has raced only twice this year and not since March, is the 6-1 favorite in my first line for Horse of the Year.
In the last 40 years, only one champion 2-year-old, American Pharoah, went on to become the Horse of the Year at age 3. That might suggest Essential Quality’s 8-1 odds in the HOY line are too low, for he’s no American Pharoah. But Essential Quality is admirably consistent and unusually talented, and in the Belmont he took the step forward that he needed to if he’s to compete against the best older horses this fall.
This season’s 3-year-olds have been, to put it succinctly, solidly good — hardly comparable to the group in 2007 (Curlin, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday), but nowhere close to that underachieving, undistinguished class that appeared 10 years later. In 2017, after he won the Kentucky Derby (G1), Always Dreaming didn’t win another race (going 5-0-1-1 into the next year); after he won the Preakness Stakes (G1), Cloud Computing also failed to win another race (going 4-0-0-0 into the next year); and after he won the Belmont, Tapwrit never won another race either (going 5-0-0-1 into the next year). Their collective debacle speaks to how stressful and demanding the Triple Crown series can be, but it also suggests the 2017 class of 3-year-olds was extraordinary for its mediocrity. (And so when the time came to hand out Eclipse Awards, West Coast, who won the Travers (G1) and the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), took the prize as champion 3-year-old.) But this year’s group is solidly good, perhaps even good enough to produce a serious Horse of the Year candidate.
And rarely have there been so many compelling story lines, so many intriguing questions: Will Charlatan race again (the answer could arrive at the end of the month), and if so, will he regain his best form? Can the lightly raced Happy Saver, who won last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), build on his recent allowance victory and become one of the best older horses in the country? Will Royal Ship and Country Grammer settle their rivalry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Can Knicks Go come back from a disappointing Metropolitan Handicap (G1) and will Met Mile winner Silver State keep streaking? Did Maxfield dislike the Santa Anita surface or the 1 1/4 miles of the Big ‘Cap when losing for the first time? The championship season should answer all the questions. After all, this is the serious season, the championship season, which amplifies value and importance. This is when everything counts most.
The dichotomy of the sport’s two seasons was most evident in 2004. From January to June, Smarty Jones won six of his seven races, all stakes, including two gems from the most baroque piece of jewelry in all of sport, narrowly missing an historic sweep of the Triple Crown, and earned $7,563,535. The most charismatic star horse racing had seen since the great Cigar, Smarty Jones was feted, toasted and celebrated during that heady Triple Crown season, but never raced after his loss in the Belmont. And then came the serious season.
Ghostzapper began his campaign on the Fourth of July by winning the Tom Fool Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park and concluded it by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park; in between, he won the Philip H. Iselin (G3) and the Woodward (G1). He won all four of his races and earned $2,590,000. So who had the better year? But Ghostzapper was the best horse in the country when it counted most, during the championship season, and he was named Horse of the Year.
And a son of Ghostzapper, Mystic Guide, has been aimed at this championship season for — well, virtually his whole life. His trainer, Mike Stidham, explained that Mystic Guide’s “potential and talent” were evident from the moment he arrived in the barn as a 2-year-old. But the Godolphin colt didn’t race at 2; he was born for other things, serious endeavors. By a Horse of the Year and out of a mare, Music Note, who won five Grade 1 stakes, including the Coaching Club American Oaks, Mystic Guide needed two races to discover the winner’s circle and a few more to raise his game to a stakes level. Bursting with potential, he needed only time; Stidham and Godolphin patiently gave him all he needed.
“We could have tried the (Kentucky) Derby and the Preakness,” Stidham said. “But all those races — well, we decided not to because we focused on his potential. The program seems to have paid off.”
In February, he announced he was making good on his promise of potential when he won the Razorback Handicap (G3) at Oaklawn Park by six lengths despite a wide trip. The performance was so overwhelming that it encouraged his connections to reach for the Dubai World Cup (G1), which he won by nearly four lengths.
And so the goal for Mystic Guide is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which in this championship season could lead to Horse of the Year honors. It’s the goal he was born to pursue. He’s aimed for a return to competition in the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park on July 3.
“He’s doing well, training well (at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland) and has had five works,” Stidham said. “We’ll make decisions based on each race going forward; he’ll have two or three races before the Breeders’ Cup.”
Some horses, it seems, never return to their highest level of performance once they return from Dubai. Arrogate, for example, won six consecutive races before traveling to Dubai for the 2017 World Cup he won with a spectacular performance; but on returning he lost the final three races of his career. Stidham was concerned about the Dubai transition. But Mystic Guide, he said, “thrived in Dubai,” and on returning he was so eager to get back to work he was “tearing the barn down.”
And so, he approaches this championship season on an arc of improvement and development. He has demonstrated he possesses the superlative talent and the poise to excel at the classic distance at the highest levels, and he was born for this season, for this high seriousness. Like Mystic Guide, the early favorite to become Horse of the Year, this championship season could be special.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.